The humble carpenter (Channing Tatum) in his workshop.
Show Hide image

“Yes, my God is a she”: why Magic Mike XXL is a religious experience

A carpenter who knows it is better to give than to receive? Magic Mike is basically Jesus.

The glistening surface of the Magic Mike franchise seems to glorify hyper-masculinity: posters replete with straining bulges and protruding abs, dominant stances and douchebag hats. The most heavily-trailed scene sees Mike (Channing Tatum) hard at the traditionally masculine career he abandoned stripping for in the first film, dancing as he welds in his garage.

But these concerns are cast aside as soon as Mike reunites with his old entertaining buddies, the “Kings of Tampa”, for a road trip to Myrtle Beach to perform at a stripping convention: their “one last ride”. Once Mike is persuaded to join them, he is forced to leave behind all thoughts of his furniture-making business, as Richie (Joe Manganiello) chucks his work phone from the bus. Mike later responds by gathering up their old stripping outfits, equally symbolic of stereotypically macho pursuits: hurling firefighting and military uniforms onto the street. The trappings of traditional masculinity are quite literally thrown out of the window in the film’s opening minutes. We even learn, on the gang’s first stop, that “Big Dick” Richie (the guy with, surprise surprise, the biggest dick) is the one getting the least sex because women are so intimidated by his size. Magic Mike XXL frames patriarchal ideals of manhood as redundant when it comes to pleasing women, and therefore in satisfying heterosexual men themselves.

Much has been noted about Magic Mike XXL’s attention to the female gaze, which it does beautifully, especially when Richie performs in a service station for a bored cashier: the camera turning from her eyes, to his body, and back again. But, for better or worse, this is a film that devotes even more time mediating on the ways in which attention to the female gaze can be satisfying, liberating, and even redemptive, for the male “object”. 

Richie introduces the road trip to Mike, and the audience, as a spiritual journey: "Tomorrow we start the pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach for the convention!" That the destination of this journey, the site of communion with the divine, is a sweaty Florida convention hall thick with women's bodies, makes women the unequivocal subject of devotion. The male entertainers in Magic Mike don't just serve women in their performances - they deify them. As Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), their MC, calls to the crowd: “Are you ready to be worshipped? Are you ready to be exalted?"

This extends beyond the stage: attention to female desire is given narrative prominence. Like on any good pilgrimage, the male entertainers are periodically faced with obstacles which their sheer devotion can help them overcome. The key hurdles on the road to Myrtle Beach require the men to charm, pleasure and persuade women in positions of power. They obtain a car from Nancy (Andie McDowell) after spending an evening with her and her friends, exploring their sexual fantasies. Mike impresses host Rome enough for her to step in as MC, and charms Paris (Elizabeth Banks) into giving them a high profile slot at the convention. The men often break off from their journey to try and "make women smile", simply for the joy of it. “All we gotta to do is ask them what they want,” says Andre (Donald Glover), “and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing”. It’s a simple principle that they apply without discrimination to every woman they meet on their journey. Black, white, thin, fat, tall, short, confident, shy: all women are treated simultaneously as equals and individuals. "Yes, my God is a she," Mike says casually.

This is a film that explicitly and repeatedly frames attention to female desire as a near-religious act. But perhaps what makes Magic Mike XXL so radical is that the male entertainers are not demeaned or humiliated by their service to women: they, too, are “exalted” by it. Their pilgrimage finally sees the extent of their devotion reciprocated by a thunderous crowd of screaming women and a shower of dollar bills. Give, and it shall be given unto you. 

Sexual devotion is a mutual, fluid exchange, and, in these scenes, it lifts both the male entertainers and their audience to a higher spiritual status than most mere mortals. “You are all queens,” Rome tells the convention hall crowd. As the famous medieval religious poem, Pearl, tells us: in heaven (or, indeed, South Carolina), all women can simultaneously be Queen, thanks to the mysterious power of divine love. “We’re like healers or something,” says Andre.

So, while it might seem excessive to compare Magic Mike with Jesus... Magic Mike is basically Jesus. He is, after all, a carpenter who lays his tools aside to feed the 5,000-strong crowd of greedy women waiting to get their rocks off at Myrtle Beach, loving each of them indiscriminately, unconditionally. As the XXL poster so playfully suggests, this film is his second coming. The reunited Kings of Tampa even rename themselves “Resurrection”, for Christ’s sake.

It’s true that Magic Mike XXL is a film with its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek. But after decades of cinema that treats men like gods for viewing women as objects, it's heartening to see a film that glorifies men for treating women like gods.

***

Now listen to Anna discussing Magic Mike on the NS pop culture podcast:

 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution